In April, NASA awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $2.89 billion contract to develop the landing system that would be used to bring astronauts safely to the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis mission. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, however, was not impressed to lose out and has now also put forward a proposal albeit over twice as expensive.
Originally, NASA was expected to pick two out of the possible three companies (SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics) competing for the contract, but made an alleged last-minute decision to opt for just the SpaceX proposal. The price difference was a matter of contention for the more expensive Blue Origin who accused the space agency of giving SpaceX an unfair advantage by allowing it to revise the pricing of its lunar lander proposal following a change in NASA budget. For this reason, back in April, Bezos's company filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) against NASA. The decision from the GAO is expected early next month.
Bezos has now approached NASA with a new proposal. In an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, he offered "to restore competition to the Human Landing System program by closing NASA’s near-term budgetary shortfall" by waiving payment for the current and next fiscal years up to $2 billion as well as paying for orbital missions to test the technology. Furthermore, Bezos guarantees that Blue Origin will accept a firm fixed price and cover any cost overruns.
“I believe this mission is important. I am honored to offer these contributions and am grateful to be in a financial position to be able to do so. NASA veered from its original dual-source acquisition strategy due to perceived near-term budgetary issues, and this offer removes that obstacle,” Bezos says in the letter.
The change in tune from Bezos has people suspecting the GAO will not side with him and his company over the awarding of contracts. NASA wanted two companies to make the Human Landing System but given Blue Origin's $5.99 billion price tag on its lander, it was beyond the space agency’s budget. Despite President Joe Biden's 2022 federal budget giving the agency the largest budget request for NASA science ever, it's still just 0.41 percent of the year's total budget.
Bezos lobbied for an increase in NASA’s budget. While that passed at the Senate, it was stopped in the chamber of representatives.
The Artemis Program aims to take humans back to the Moon by 2024 and, in the longer term, establish a sustainable settlement on the surface as well as one in orbit around our natural satellite. With its $2.89 billion contract, SpaceX is expected to perform a demonstration of its Starship as a lunar lander early that year.
It is very much uncertain if NASA will go for this offer but even if it’s refused this time around, it doesn’t mean Blue Origin won't get a chance to develop a Human Landing System in the future. It's expected that after the first landing back on the Moon, NASA will request more funding and look for commercial partners again, allowing the space agency to have two lander providers as it had planned.